It is this extraordinary report, by Brian Castner, published today in Motherboard. It is called “One Degree of Separation in the Forever War,” and I promise you will find it worth the time, and later reflection.
I would like everyone thinking about, or voting on, American foreign and military policy also to read and absorb this essay. Readers owe thanks to Brian Castner for writing it. The public owes deep respect to the Hines brothers whom it describes.
In response to this past week’s NFL observances of Veterans Day, including camouflage-themed clothing for coaches and sideline staff, a reader sends a comparative note on how pro sports teams elsewhere recognize this occasion:
You mentioned lapel poppies in the UK the other day. Worth noting that how the UK observes Remembrance Day is very different even at sporting events. Here is some fan-shot video from the proceedings at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in North London this past Saturday:
In addition, every player had a poppy embroidered on their jersey. I find this way of marking the occasion far more meaningful than the overly jingoistic version that seems to predominate on our shores.
Veterans Day respects and gratitude to those who have sacrificed and served.
To spare effort by those getting ready to write in and explain this distinction: I do realize that the connotations of Remembrance Day, in England and elsewhere, are different from those of Veterans Day on the same November 11 date in the United States. Originally all these observances were Armistice Day, recognizing the end of World War I hostilities on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918. As another world war began, the name was generally shifted to Remembrance Day, which in England serves the purpose Memorial Day does in the United States: that of recognizing those who died in the line of duty. (For more on the Civil War origins of American Memorial Day, see Deb Fallows’s item from Mississippi.) In the United States, Veterans Day is for those who have performed military service, living and dead.
Will Bardenwerper, who joined the Army after the 9/11 attacks and served as an infantry officer in Iraq, has a very strong essay in the Washington Post just now on the hollowness of the “Salute to the Heroes!” rituals that have become part of professional sports, especially the NFL. The title gives you the idea: “How patriotic pageantry at sporting events lost its meaning.” Here is a sample:
I should appreciate these moments at professional sporting events. I did once, but not so much anymore. Neither do a surprising number of the men with whom I served…. These moments, after a decade and a half of continuous war, have become rote and perfunctory, unintentionally trivializing what began with the best of intentions.
And, more pointedly, about the scenes that might accompany the heartwarming videos of a service member being reunited with spouse and children:
When I saw this, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like if, instead, the Jumbotron had carried live footage of a military “casualty notification” officer in his dress uniform approaching the door of a comfortable home in middle America, stepping across a carefully manicured lawn, knocking on the door, an American flag blowing lazily in the breeze overhead, and having a mother collapse in tears at the sight of him, before he even has a chance to tell her that her only son had been shot and killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Very much worth reading. Bardenwerper even has a “to do” suggestion at the end of his essay. Conceivably at some point the chickenhawk shamelessness of these spectacles will sink in.
Additionally, from a reader on the East Coast:
Yesterday at noon I posted on Facebook that, as a veteran, I was NOT “honored” when the NFL’s partners sell camo clothing.
I got 25 likes, and I only have 100 – 125 “friends”.
Here’s a strange story out of Annapolis that seems to fit within Fallows’s new thread on Chickenhawk Nation, or the tendency of the American public to express easy gestures of gratitude to the military without at the very least informing themselves about why servicemembers are deployed all over the world, let alone sacrificing anything themselves. (As the son of two retired Army officers, including a Vietnam vet, I’m a bit biased on this.) So here’s the story: Local fans of the Naval Academy’s football team have renewed a seemingly sweet but condescending habit of tossing candy to the brigade of about 4,400 midshipmen that traditionally marches into the stadium at every home game. Things have even gotten ugly:
“[Y]ou get these little cretins who throw [the candy] 150 mph,” then-city police Sgt. Paul Gibbs told The Capital [in October 1998]. Well, the enthusiasts may have returned this season, because complaints resurfaced about the practice — don’t call it a tradition — of throwing Snickers, Starbursts, Tootsie Rolls, even hamburgers at the brigade.
“I saw hamburgers lying in the street,” said Bill O’Leary, who has lived across from the stadium since the 1990s. For years, he has called for an end to the throwing. “They throw plastic water bottles at them, too.”
Beer cans were added to the onslaught during a game against Wake Forest in 2009. Since the late ‘90s, Naval Academy officials have repeatedly urged the public to stop this habit—“It shows a lack of respect for the uniform of our armed services,” according to one statement—but it keeps popping up. Here’s one lame defense from a local fan via Facebook:
“As a kid, I grew up watching the Brigade of Midshipmen marching from the academy to the games at the stadium. My first memories were that we would toss candy to them so they could have some treats during the game. It wasn’t ‘throwing candy at them’ to be disrespectful. Then sometimes they would have candy to thank us and toss it back,”
Short-version background to this post: what I’m calling Chickenhawk Nation is a country whose troops are always at war, but whose people are mainly untouched by war, and that tries to paper over that difference with ritualized “Salute to the Heroes” ceremonies, like today’s throughout the NFL. You can read the long version of the background here, or in other messages on this thread.
Today’s installment: how to think about the popularity of military camo gear among people who have never dreamed of enlisting, and the additional role of flags. First, from a serial entrepreneur who now makes his living as a mariner:
One of the thing I've noticed is that homeless people now festoon their rigs with American flags. This was brought to mind by the fellow who roams our neighborhood in [XXX] with a shopping cart picking up scrap metal, but I've also seen it on shanty boats in the ICW [Intracoastal Waterway] and elsewhere. I'm pretty sure this is a post-9/11 phenomenon, but I think it's lingered because of the thin patriotism that Chickhawkism fosters.
My theory is that by adorning their carts, tents, boats, etc with flags (the guy in our neighborhood has 4 or 5 on his shopping cart) these guys feels they are marginally less likely to get hassled by authorities. As someone who has been a vagrant here and their through my life, I know that being hassled by The Man is an ever-present burden that one is wise to take steps to blunt.
I could easily document this, but can't think of a way or reason to do it that doesn't further trample the dignity of these unfortunate fellow, so I just pass it along as something I've noticed in our current Cult of the Flag/ Chickenhawk times.
Further on the NFL-and-military connection, from a reader in Seattle:
As for our SeaChickenHawks: It’s difficult to reconcile that they’ve taken $453k from the military for such events when you consider this little-known but ugly incident between coach Pete Carroll and Gen. Peter Chiarelli.
The reader goes on to quote from this Deadspin account, unrefuted by Carroll or the Seahawks as far as I can tell, about Carroll trying to convince Chiarelli — who had been inside the Pentagon when the 9/11 airplane hit the building, and whom I first met when he was a young officer at West Point 30 years ago — that the whole attack was a hoax. Sample quotes:
Chiarelli—who grew up in Seattle—is a big Seahawks fan. His post-military work concerns traumatic brain injury research, a cause of some significance to the NFL. And both have plenty of experience leading groups of men on grand American stages.
The sit-down between Chiarelli and Carroll started off normally enough. They talked about the team, and then about head trauma. Chiarelli, who commanded the American forces in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom II, talked about the brain injuries he had seen there. But Chiarelli's mention of Iraq sent Carroll in another direction: He wanted to know if the September 11 attacks had been planned or faked by the United States government.
In particular, Carroll wanted to know whether the attack on the Pentagon had really happened.
You can read more at the Deadspin account. A further fillip on a culture that is symbolically reverent of “the heroes” but in real terms vastly distant from them.
In the context of this past week’s “Paid Patriotism” report by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, about the way the Pentagon has been paying pro sports teams for patriotic on-field displays, a reader sends a screenshot from one of today’s games:
Sorry for the interruption, but I had to send this from the game on now. All of the coaches are dressed in camouflage!
Yes it's Veterans Day Wednesday, but during the years when I lived in England, where people really know about the horrors of war, no one would even think of dressing up like that. If you wanted to honor vets you wore a red poppy.
And of course red poppies on the lapel are very widespread Remembrance Day tributes in the U.K., Canada, Australia, etc. It’s worth noting that the camo theme in today’s U.S. football games applies not simply to the caps but even to the Bose headsets, as you see here.
The significant point, I think, is that the American public has seen things like this so often that we barely notice any more. The re-themed Bose headsets are another detail that Ben Fountain might have worked into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, though perhaps he was worried about making the satire a little too broad.
Update Thanks to a reader for pointing out that in a special salute to the troops, the NFL’s online shop is offering a full 15% off list price to veterans and service members.
Pro football looms large in modern America’s consciousness in all ways, but notably so in what we’ve been discussing as ChickenhawkPaid Patriotism. Ben Fountain’s wonderful novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, builds its whole plot around a halftime “Salute to the Heroes!” at a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys game. And NFL teams were prominently featured in the Sen. McCain/Sen. Flake exposé on the Pentagon’s underwriting of pro-veteran and pro-troop displays at sports events.
A reader writes about why he objects in particular to the NFL:
Just wanted to say it has long bothered me that the National Football League foists "tributes to the military" during its games. (Other leagues might bother me just as much, but I pay less attention to them).
I can think of no demographic group in the United States that has a lower rate of service in the US military than the players, owners, and coaches of the National Football League. For members of the NFL, it is virtually always “my career over my country.” I am almost 60 years old, and a lifelong fan of football, but of the thousands of players who have played in the NFL in my lifetime, I can recall only two players—Roger Staubach and Pat Tillman—who have served in the US military. [JF note: I am sure there are more, but like the reader I don’t immediately think of them. I checked the NFL’s site for players/coaches with military connections. The list is here, and it’s mainly “father served in Vietnam,” “brother is in the Reserves” etc.]
Plus, the NFL as an organization does all it can to avoid paying taxes to support those who do serve. And its owners generally have their nose in the trough to gather up as many tax dollars as they can to subsidize their profit-seeking enterprises.
In terms of real military service and support, it would be difficult to find a more concentrated cluster of physical and economic wimpiness than the National Football League.
On the more substantive questions of the real respect and accommodation for troops, veterans, and their families, a reader with a military background writes:
I often find myself dumbfounded at the superficial "support" thrown to veterans and as a veteran, insulted at the jingoism-driven lack of true oversight over military spending. For whatever it is worth, I felt I ought to lend you my humble two cents.
I am veteran of the Canadian Army living in the U.S. I served in Afghanistan prior to settling in Virginia with my U.S. wife. Another aspect of the “chicken-hawk economy” that I think is worth more public scrutiny is how veterans integrate into the workforce.
Many large U.S. firms have veteran hiring targets and specialized veteran recruiters. Businesses typically view "veterans" as a homogeneous group that is stereotyped as "you must be good following orders," or "repetitive tasks don't faze you," and many others. Some are positive, but most I typically find off-putting and indicative of a society that understands little (nor seems to want to understand) of what service entails.
Every veteran is unique. Some 25 year olds negotiated peace settlements between warring tribes. Some 25 year olds fixed armored vehicles. Some 25 year olds ran Pashto-language radio stations. The work performed by former members of the military should be treated equal to work performed by non-former members of the military by potential employers.
I am confident enough in the work done by veterans overseas that it can (or should) easily compete with those with equivalent civilian world experience. I find that US hiring managers seem to want to avoid the details of my service, in favor of a more superficial treatment of me as a "veteran" who can "obey orders." The accomplishments of veterans are not given the opportunity to speak for themselves because of this "chicken-hawk society" in which those not directly engaged with the armed services pay it lip service but do not want to dive into the grittier details.
Post 9/11 veterans engaged in an unprecedented type of conflict. The nature of counterinsurgency in the information age dictated that major decisions, that in prior generations would have been made by Colonels and Generals, were decentralized to some of the lowest levels. A generation of veterans holding some of the strongest leadership credentials of any generation is being undervalued and stereotyped by the society to which it returns. This is wrong from a business perspective, and an unethical way to treat those who served.
A retired Air Force officer, who still does some contracting work with the Pentagon, writes about the news that the Defense Department was underwriting “salute to the heroes!” pageants at pro sports games:
A couple of thoughts:
1. Don’t be so quick to give some recognition to the Washington sports teams for not receiving money from the Pentagon. [JF: I pointed out that the Nationals, Caps, Wizards, and Redskins were not on the pay-for-celebrating-troops list.] I believe that the fawning to veterans at these settings is underwritten by Defense contractors, rather than the Pentagon itself. General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, etc.
I am truly split at what makes me more sick—DoD underwriting it, or the purveyors of weapon system underwriting it, who help to lobby for using their weapons. Particularly sickening for me at Nats games where we often see so many wounded from Walter Reed there.
2. Another item to make you sick: Watching a Marine at formal parade rest while pampered golfers eye up their putts. [See above.]
I am a retired AF officer, and I get the need for recruitment budgets. But for multi-million (billion) dollar for-profit sports enterprises who benefit so greatly from other forms of DoD support (flyovers, security, sports-loving soldiers, etc) to also take money for this stuff ...
We have lost all connection with the military. [The people cooking up these plans] should be pilloried, but the public really won’t care. Hell, leading presidential candidates can insult prisoners-of-war and their numbers go up.
In this new Thread I will revive a string of reader commentary, plus news updates (F-35, A-10, budgets and strategy, veterans’ welfare, future strategy), on the themes I dealt with in my Chickenhawk Nation article early this year. The article’s official title was “The Tragedy of the American Military.” Early this year, before the introduction of our Notes and Threads, I ran more than 20 installments of reader response to it. You can find a compendium of them here, and eventually I’ll try to migrate them to this page as well.
Let’s begin: There is simply no other place to revive this series than with the new report by Arizona’s two U.S. Senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, called “Paid Patriotism.” That’s the cover, below. You can read the whole thing in PDF here.
The surprise value of this report, for me, was that neither I, nor Ben Fountain, had been anywhere near cynical enough.
Ben Fountain is the author of the celebrated, widely read, and should-be-read-even-more-widely short novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I discussed in my piece. At face value, Fountain’s book is remarkably cynical. It is about a little group of U.S. troops serving in Iraq, who are brought back to be featured in a “Salute to the Heroes!” at halftime at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving day, and then are shipped right back to the front. All the civilians feel good about their few minutes of congratulating the heroes. Then the civilians get back to real life of making and spending, and they forget about the war, and the troops.
Plenty cynical, right? And I felt cynical for saying that Billy Lynn had captured the spirit of “a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously.”
What I hadn’t imagined, and what Fountain would presumably have added to his novel to darken its mood if he didn’t think it would strain credulity, is what Senators McCain and Flake document in this report: that the Pentagon has been underwriting many of these seemingly heartfelt “salutes.” Just for one example, the Atlanta Falcons got as much as $300,000 per year for honoring-the-military services like these for the Georgia Army National Guard:
There is more, about a lot of teams in in all the major sports leagues. I encourage you to read and reflect on it. Local-interest note: D.C.-area sports fans usually don’t have much to celebrate. But for whatever reason, only the D.C. United soccer team, among local franchises, was involved in the celebration-for-pay program. Not the baseball Nationals, hockey Capitals, basketball Wizards, or our NFL team.
In Pentagon terms, we’re not talking about a lot of money — a few million dollars, in an organization that spends more than a billion per day. But that money has disproportionate symbolic sting.
So Ben Fountain had not imagined the full reality, and neither had I. The American public is willing to pause at halftime and think respectfully about the one percent of us involved in carrying out our open-ended wars. As long the Pentagon is footing the bill.
Boris Johnson has faced his share of blame for the country’s death count. But the British system was failing long before the coronavirus struck.
Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s leaders asked their people to do three things, captured in one pithy slogan: “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”
On the first of those edicts, Britons largely followed through. Main streets, town centers, and public spaces were mostly abandoned, and the government pulled together a far-reaching job-protection program, ensuring that those who feared losing their jobs felt safe enough to not go to work.
The second request was more unusual. During the pandemic, Britain was the only major country in the world to make protecting its National Health Service a central goal. Signs and placards went up outside people’s homes, declaring their appreciation. The words Thank You NHS can now be seen on sidewalks and soccer jerseys, in children’s bedrooms and even, until recently, the windows of 10 Downing Street. In part, this worked. The NHS adapted to the crisis at extraordinary speed, creating the emergency capacity required to deal with the surge of patients. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson was released from the hospital after contracting COVID-19, he said that Britain was winning its battle against the disease because the public had “formed a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset,” the NHS.
The comedian’s employees say that fame has enabled callousness and abuse on her show. The warm testimonies of her superstar friends highlight their point.
Famous people want the world to know that Ellen DeGeneres is nice to famous people. Addressing media reports alleging a culture of harassment and bullying at DeGeneres’s talk show, the singer Katy Perry tweeted Tuesday that she’s “only ever had positive takeaways from my time with Ellen.” Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Hart, Jay Leno, Diane Keaton, and the superstar agent Scooter Braun have all recently made similar declarations about DeGeneres’s kindness, so as to push back against claims painting her as callous toward staffers, fans, and other entertainment-industry figures. “Looking forward to the future where we get back to loving one another,” Hart wrote, blasting those who have criticized DeGeneres and called for her to step down. “This hate shit has to stop.”
Short of an outright constitutional crisis, a lot could still go horribly wrong.
A brazen refusal by the president to leave office is surely a nightmare scenario. But even if President Donald Trump were to lose and accept the results on November 3 or soon thereafter, he could nevertheless wreak significant damage during the period between the election and the inauguration of Joe Biden—endangering the incoming administration, at best, and actively sabotaging it, at worst.
Presidential transitions are perilous even in normal times. With each inauguration of a new president every four to eight years, the executive branch undergoes a massive overhaul; more than 4,000 new political appointees flood into federal departments and agencies, including 1,200 senior officials who require Senate confirmation. The minute a new president is sworn in, his administration assumes responsibility for everything from nuclear launch codes to pandemic response, economic policy, and counterterrorism—at the very moment when the government’s capacity is most diminished. At the Defense Department alone, the nation’s largest employer and perhaps the world’s most complex organization, the top 59 senior civilian leaders, from the secretary of defense on down, are political appointees requiring Senate confirmation. A private-sector company would be crazy to emulate this approach, yet the security, the health, and the prosperity of Americans depend on its success.
The rumors began with a video depicting a black-clad figure in the group’s signature Guy Fawkes mask. “Greetings, citizens of the United States,” the figure said in a creepy, distorted voice. “This is a message from Anonymous to the Minneapolis Police Department.” The masked announcer addressed Floyd’s killing and the larger pattern of police misconduct, concluding, “We will be exposing your many crimes to the world. We are legion. Expect us.”
The clip generated a wave of renewed enthusiasm for Anonymous, particularly among young people. Twitter accounts associated with the group saw a surge of new followers, a couple of them by the millions.
American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase.
If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world.
A long obsession with Mars makes all the other worlds seem a little neglected.
Paul Byrne loves Mars. He wrote his doctoral thesis and several research papers about the planet. Most of his graduate students study Mars. And yet, earlier this year, he posed this question on Twitter: “If you could end the pandemic by destroying one of the planets, which one would you choose and why would it be Mars?”
What does Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University, have against the red planet? Nothing, he told me. But everyone else loves Mars too, and maybe a little too much.
Aside from Earth and the moon, humankind has studied Mars more than any other world in the universe. In the United States, many planetary scientists are devoted, in one way or another, to the study of Mars. Since 1996, NASA has sent more than a dozen robots to orbit, rove, dig, and hop around the planet. The latest NASA rover, Perseverance, departed for Mars in July, days after China and the United Arab Emirates launched their own missions to the planet.
This is a good day, Samantha tells me: 10 on a scale of 10. We’re sitting in a conference room at the San Marcos Treatment Center, just south of Austin, Texas, a space that has witnessed countless difficult conversations between troubled children, their worried parents, and clinical therapists. But today promises unalloyed joy. Samantha’s mother is visiting from Idaho, as she does every six weeks, which means lunch off campus and an excursion to Target. The girl needs supplies: new jeans, yoga pants, nail polish.
At 11, Samantha is just over 5 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashes a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (history), and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family—Samantha hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.”
No matter what happens now, the virus will continue to circulate around the world.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurgingin manyof the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.
The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.
They’re hoping that the vice-presidential nominee will be as malleable as Joe Biden.
The far left of the Democratic Party spent much of the primary attacking Kamala Harris, decrying her as an untrustworthy “cop” whose overtures to the left were half-hearted and opportunistic. But with Joe Biden naming the senator from California as his running mate, some progressive leaders and activists, including Harris skeptics, sound reluctantly optimistic about what the pair could achieve.
The progressives I interviewed seem to view Harris and Biden as similar figures, occupying an “in-between space” in American politics, as one activist put it to me. Their political identities and agendas are a muddled mix of the old establishment Democratic politics and the progressivism of the surging Millennial left—a combination progressives believe they can work with. They think that, just as Biden has already welcomed progressive input in his campaign, Harris could be malleable, a potential vice president they can push in their ideological direction.
Which is too bad because we really need to understand how the immune system reacts to the coronavirus.
Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET on August 5, 2020.
There’s a joke about immunology, which Jessica Metcalf of Princeton recently told me. An immunologist and a cardiologist are kidnapped. The kidnappers threaten to shoot one of them, but promise to spare whoever has made the greater contribution to humanity. The cardiologist says, “Well, I’ve identified drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people.” Impressed, the kidnappers turn to the immunologist. “What have you done?” they ask. The immunologist says, “The thing is, the immune system is very complicated …” And the cardiologist says, “Just shoot me now.”
The thing is, the immune system is very complicated. Arguably the most complex part of the human body outside the brain, it’s an absurdly intricate network of cells and molecules that protect us from dangerous viruses and other microbes. These components summon, amplify, rile, calm, and transform one another: Picture a thousand Rube Goldberg machines, some of which are aggressively smashing things to pieces. Now imagine that their components are labeled with what looks like a string of highly secure passwords: CD8+, IL-1β, IFN-γ. Immunology confuses even biology professors who aren’t immunologists—hence Metcalf’s joke.